Portrait Tips on the Street [Duel]

In Portrait by Jim Harmer

This week Dustin and I (Jim) were in the studio writing photo tips for you guys.  It had been a slow day and we were catching a bit of studio fever (it's just like cabin fever–but in a studio).

I went outside to find something to shoot.  It was the middle of the day and the small town of Nampa, Idaho isn't known for being terribly picturesque.  However, I found an old dilapidated building that caught my eye.  I decided to make something out of it.  I studied the building for ten minutes thinking of how I could make a picture there.  When I finally turned around, my eye caught an older man sitting by his bicycle who earns his living by finding and recycling soda cans (fine… “pop” cans for those of you who insist on calling it that).

I approached the man and talked with him for a minute.  For those of you who are a bit too timid to do this, here's how I approach strangers: “I'm sorry to bother you, but I'm a professional photographer and think your face would look great in a picture.  Have you ever modeled in a photo shoot?”  (They almost always say they haven't).  I then explained that it would only take a few minutes and I would be happy to pay him $10 for his time.

One of the first shots from the shoot.  Very boring.  I took us a while to see what look worked best for this model.

One of the first shots from the shoot. Very boring. I took us a while to see what look worked best for this model.

After he agreed, I hurried back to the studio to get Dustin, a model release, two flashes, and a camera.  Then, the shoot was on.  The first few photos were very predictable and boring.  It usually takes 20 or 30 frames of trying different things until I can tell what the model's best look is for the shoot.  I asked the man to smile, to gaze into the sky, to put on mean face, to put his hand in his hair, to put his fist under his chin, etc.  I don't really expect to get a great photo in the first few minutes, but I want to see what expression and pose works best for that particular model.

Unlike most of our weekly camera duels where Dustin and I each take a photo and then post them here for you to vote on whose photo won, this week's shoot was truly a collaborative effort.  We both switched off shooting and moving around lights, coaching the model, etc.  So this week you're voting on which photo you prefer, and not whose photo you prefer.

New to the weekly Improve Photography Duel?  Check out this page, where we explain how it works.  A new camera duel will be released each Monday, and we're asking YOU to vote on the photos below.

Photos and Portrait Tips from the Streets


Photo 1 –  f/13, 1/200 shutter speed, and ISO 100.

Photo 2 - 1/250 | f/13 | ISO 200

Photo 2 – f/13, 1/200 shutter speed, and ISO 100.

Setup and camera settings: After interacting with the model for a few minutes, we could see that his best look was pensive and a bit serious.  We took a few headshots and liked the character in his face, but the photo was still very dull.  When he started smoking, we immediately recognized that the very unhealthy prop would add a lot of character to the shot.  I'm not a smoker so it was a bit hard to deal with the smell, but it made for a great shot.

Since we were using flash, we automatically went to our default flash photography settings of f/8 aperture, 1/200 shutter speed because of the flash sync speed, and ISO 100.  After a few test shots, we could see that produced too bright of a photo since it was the middle of the day, so we stopped down the aperture to f/13.

Behind the scenes of a photoshoot of a man on the street.

The main light is an Einstein 640 studio flash. We would get the EXACT same result with a simple speedlight, but we were in a hurry so we grabbed the first two flashes we saw. The second flash is a simple YN560 II flash that only costs $70.

Lighting setup: For lighting, we used two flashes.  We put a medium-sized softbox on the main flash and placed it about 7 feet (2.1 meters) away from the subject.  That main flash was put close to the plane of the wall he was leaning against so that it would illuminate his left cheek and leave more of a shadow on the side of the face closest to the camera.  We wanted to include dramatic shadows on this shot to highlight the character in his face, but we wanted his eyes to look well-lit so that he would appear friendly instead of angry.

The second flash was hand-held just barely outside of the frame.  No lighting modifier was needed on this flash, but we did use a little zoom on the flash so that the light would only hit the smoke from his cigarette without ruining the lighting on his face from the main light.

If you're new to flash photography, Dustin and I teach a lighting class that you can watch on your computer where we walk you step-by-step through how to set up flash, where to place the lights, etc.

Post-processing (Photo 1): All I really needed to do was slightly desaturate (lessen the color) of the photo so that the viewer would notice textures more than color.  I tried this photo in black and white, but without color the man's eyes were lost because there was so much competing texture.  I think the desaturated color is a good middle ground of showing texture but still using a little color to help the viewer focus attention on the eyes.

Post-processing (Photo 2): Photoshop was used to enhance the lighting in the photo. The shadows were increased to give greater importance to the highlights on his face. Then traditional edits of increasing/decreasing saturation between the foreground and background, adding some sharpening to help bring out the texture, and increased contrast between highlights and shadows . The editing styled was intended to have you focus on his facial expression and what he was doing. You can still see the background and his bike – but he is the key part of the photo and the lighting helps that focal point become stronger.

Photo Contest!

We were able to capture some unique and interesting shots from this unplanned photo shoot.  This week, we've even committed to carrying our cameras with us 100% of the time.  We're encouraging you to get out and find an unplanned photo opportunity with a little contest that we announced this morning.  Read about the contest here.  Oh, and we're giving away a LENS to the winner!

 Which photo do you prefer from this shoot?  

You can vote on your favorite photo using the poll below (if you're reading this via email you need to come to the website), but also leave a comment and tell us what you think of our process, the photos, and the shoot in general.

About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. He blogs about how to start an internet business on IncomeSchool.com..